Welcome to the world of Nafi Thiam, where the impossible is possible

Exclusive interview: With her degree finally behind her and after a spellbinding year of personal bests, the Olympic heptathlon champion arrives at the World Athletics Championships ready to reign supreme

Lawrence Ostlere
Friday 27 September 2019 09:55
Nafi Thiam: 'The goal is to do a heptathlon where you do PBs everywhere'
Nafi Thiam: 'The goal is to do a heptathlon where you do PBs everywhere'

There is something addictive about multi-discipline events like heptathlon. The decathlon great Ashton Eaton used to describe how even a winning performance left a nagging frustration which drew him back in for more, hoping to squeeze those extra centimetres, those milliseconds which would drip out a few more points. This is the thing about heptathlon; you can never really complete it. The world record still stands at a ridiculous 7,291 points, set by Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. And so perhaps it helps to have the mentality of the reigning world and Olympic champion, Nafi Thiam, who doesn’t really see impossible as a barrier so much as a target.

“The goal is to do a heptathlon where you do personal bests everywhere,” says Thiam, sitting in an old rickety stand overlooking her training track in Liege. “You try to do a perfect heptathlon. If I could do in all my PBs in one heptathlon that would be incredible, and it would be a very high score. It’s almost impossible, but I hope I can do that one day. That’s the goal.”

If multi-discipline sport is the purest test of athletic ability then there’s an argument to say Thiam is the best female athlete on the planet. Aged 25, she already has the third highest heptathlon score in history as one of only four women to have broken the 7,000 points barrier. She could compete in most of the seven events individually but her jumping is exceptional, with a high jump PB of 2.02m only 7cm short of the world record. In a few days’ time in Doha she could add ‘world champion 2019’ to her extensive list of achievements, and as if to drive home the point, last week she completed an undergraduate degree in geography. She’s weighing up a masters in territorial planning, of course, but that can wait for now.

“I’m relieved,” she says. “It’s been a really long six years so I’m happy I finished it.” When Thiam began her degree at the University of Liege there were plenty of critics on hand to warn her that studying would detract from her athletic achievements. Was she glad to prove them wrong? “Yeah, I think so. Not that I was trying to, I didn’t care, but I think I showed it’s possible to get to a very high level and that also to do something on the side can also be beneficial, because I think it’s really healthy along with athletics to have study on the side.”

By most standards this year should have been a struggle: alongside her studies she battled a slew of injuries, yet Thiam still set personal bests in the long jump, high jump, 200m and shot put, to even her own astonishment. “It was a very weird year because I had a few problems physically, but whenever I went back to competition it was always really really great for my personal PBs. I was a bit surprised about that but I try not to really think about it or try to find a reason. I’m just feeling good so I just go with it.”

Thiam is one of the best high jumpers in the world

The terrifying part for rivals like Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson is that Thiam might yet get better. She already has the optimum physical attributes for an all-round athlete, standing tall at 6ft 2ins with springs in her legs and a deceptively powerful upper body, and leaving her degree behind has given her the gift of time.

“I would get up early to start with training or school, 8am-8pm, so pretty long, and tiring,” she says with a grin and a look that says she doesn’t miss the morning alarm clock.

“Now I have way more my time for myself because I’ve been really tired all these years, it was a hard rhythm to keep up with. More time to rest, more time to go to the physio, to do exercise on the side, to pay attention to what I’m eating. Because when you don’t have time you have more temptation to go an order something rather than cook something healthy yourself, so I think it’s going to change a lot. Probably also more time to go to training camp, because with the studies I couldn’t really leave Belgium more than twice a year, so now I can whenever I want.”

She is free to leave Belgium altogether, of course. This seems an inauspicious place to find an Olympic champion: the autumn sun is shining on the old municipal track which in an hour or so will be filled with kids practising and hoping to emulate Thiam, whose face hangs on a poster on by the car park. This part of Belgium, or any part come to think of it, is not exactly a hotbed of athletics legacy. Thiam could easily move to California or Monaco where the sun shines a little brighter and where so many of the world’s best athletes live and train. She still works with the same coach, Roger Lespagnard, a 73-year-old Belgian former decathlete and kindly man who interrupts our interview to introduce himself. She loves to travel and cook, and is clearly someone with a broad perspective on life; isn’t she tempted to leave Liege and try something new?

“No, I don’t think so,” she says. “Maybe I’ll do more of the two-weeks, three-week training camps through the year, but I think my training base will still be here. I don’t want to change that. I started with my coach when I was 14 and I’m 25 now. It’s really fitting with me so I don’t see any reason to leave to be honest. If one day I see not enough progress or we don’t agree on some stuff, of course I would consider it, but it’s working good.”

It would mean leaving behind her mother, too, who brought her up in Belgium after her father returned to his home country, Senegal. Thiam rarely talks about her personal life and has often said she is naturally shy, a trait which has hardened over time into a quiet resilience. “I think I had to get used to a lot of things that I wasn’t used to, situations I wasn’t comfortable with. Press conferences, having to talk in front of a lot of people. But I’m still the same me so I’m still a shy person I think, I’m a discreet person. Maybe I’m more protecting of myself [now], because Belgium is a small country and I got in the light all of a sudden and everybody wants to know everything about you. There’s some stuff I’m happy to share with people but there’s stuff that’s only for me, like sentimental life. So I will protect myself.”

Johnson-Thompson and Thiam celebrate their European championship medals (Getty)

She has learned not only how to cope with the spotlight but how to embrace it too. Earlier this year she walked the catwalk at the Paris Fashion Show alongside other athletes wearing a luminous yellow dress and running trainers. “That was so cool!” she says. “I was a little bit stressed I’d fall and ruin the show.”

Ultimately it is Thiam’s talent and work ethic which threw her into the limelight, beating Jessica Ennis-Hill to Olympic gold in Rio aged only 22, all while nursing a ligament damage in her elbow that meant she could only attempt one javelin throw (it was a personal best). She exudes a seemingly unshakable motivation to find self-improvement that makes you want to bottle it up and take it home, and perhaps it has helped that she is introverted at heart; athletics is by and large an isolated activity, with only your mind’s moans and your body’s groans for company, a spiritual journey in which most of the gratification is found in the dedication.

“I think everybody has bad days, but [for me] not so many actually, I just love sport. It’s a job of course, it’s a lot of sacrifice, but I feel lucky it’s my life. I never thought I would be able to make it a job. I’m just very lucky that my passion is actually paying the bills. It’s hard, but I get a lot of satisfaction when I finish a training that’s hard and I gave my all.”

Where does she push herself to next? The world record may still be “untouchable”, she says – “I hope one day I’m close enough to say ‘OK that’s my goal, I want to beat it’ but I’m really, really, really, reeeally far from it” – but then Thiam doesn’t really do impossible. After these World Championships her attention will switch to Tokyo 2020 Games where she will arrive not under the radar like Rio but most likely as the overwhelming favourite to win gold. Yet you suspect that in these intervening years she has learned more than enough to cope with the expectation.

“I think I’ve learned a lot through the years on the mental side,” she says. “Rio a lot, definitely, it changed my head. I feel like it’s a bit cliche, but nothing can really stop me. I can get injured but I don’t lose my motivation, I’m always going 100 per cent, I just try to find another way. That’s what I’ve been doing this year and it paid off. Now I feel in really great shape, I just want to have fun and I feel like I can do a big score.”

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